A Jewish day school with a difference

A Jewish day school with a difference

Shefa School helps students with language disabilities

It took “a giant leap of faith” for Gila Cohen and her husband to send their son from Teaneck to the Shefa School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for fifth grade.

The school, after all, was just opening its doors.

But her son, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, was struggling at his Bergen County Jewish day school.

“They were helping him but not giving him the skills to read himself. They don’t have time to do that,” Ms. Cohen said.

She in fact had been looking for a non-Jewish school that could help with his disabilities. Then she heard about the Shefa School “and we decided to apply.” The Shefa School promised to be a Jewish school for children with language-based learning disabilities.

Her leap of faith paid off.

“Now he’s happy,” Ms. Cohen said. “He loves going to school. He can do his homework independently. He’s just a totally different kid.

“It’s fun to watch him transform into an independent learner. He’s developing skills and techniques and moving definitely in a positive direction.”

The Shefa School opened this year with 24 students in grades 2 to 5 — seven of them carpooling from Bergen County. Next year it is enrolling 48 students as it heads toward full K-8 enrollment. It is holding a parlor meeting in Teaneck this week. (See box.)

“The profile of the student we’re looking at has average or above average intelligence, but they’re struggling in the area of language,” said Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, the school’s founder and head.

“Some are dyslexic,” she said. “For others, the struggle is more in the comprehension. Sometimes word retrieval can be a challenge. For many writing is a struggle since it requires so many skills at the same time.”

The Shefa School helps its students through a focus on small group instruction, and by devoting time and attention to the challenges of reading. In the school he used to go to, Ms. Cohen’s son was pulled out from class and taken to a resource room for personal instruction. That left him feeling isolated from his class.

“At Shefa, he doesn’t feel separated,” his mother said. “It’s given him a real positive sense of self.”

Ms. Ruskay-Kidd realized the need for her school while running the preschool at the JCC in Manhattan.

“There were many students with special needs. When I looked at kindergartens with our nursery school families, I felt the students were put in a difficult situation. They could go to a special education program or a Jewish day school.

“I was watching the heartbreak of parents who had to leave Jewish day schools because their kids didn’t fit the profile of who succeeds there. I was seeing families going to some of the great special ed schools, or suffering and struggling in day schools,” she said.

Shefa was designed so parents wouldn’t have to make that trade-off.

The Jewish curriculum is different than those found in most Bergen County Jewish day schools, however. Most notably, there is much less emphasis on the Hebrew language.

Students at the Shefa School.
Students at the Shefa School.

“The research really shows that for kids with language-based learning disabilities, a second language is extremely demanding and may get in the way of strengthening and consolidating English reading and writing. It’s also a question of time. We devote two hours to English language arts every day. To put that kind of time aside, you can’t do everything,” she said.

The school has a Judaic studies period every day. “We want our students to learn about Israel, to understand what’s going on in the Torah portion, but the language of content is in English,” she said.

The school takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism, with graduates of Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary among its staff.

“There are different flavors,” Ms. Cohen said. “More important than making sure the hashkafa” — religious outlook — “is aligned with our Jewish observance is making sure our kid’s learning needs are aligned with what he needs.”

Johanna Shlomovich, also of Teaneck, has a fourth grader in the school. It was recommended to her by the administration of the day school he had been attending.

“He feels like a successful student finally,” she said. “He is definitely learning more because they’re teaching him in a way that he can learn. He’s reading more fluently, able to write better, there are improvements across the board.

“There’s definitely less Hebrew and Judaic studies, but really he needed to be able to focus on the general studies and to learn how to read.”

“This is a better model than trying to include your kid in a regular classroom,” Ms. Cohen said. “My kid didn’t feel like he was included.”

She recommended considering Shefa if your child is “struggling with reading and comprehension in school and getting lots of modifications and accommodations but not getting skills in the classroom, is constantly being pulled out for the resource room and not spending enough time in the main classroom.”

Save the date
What: Parlor meeting for parents of prospective students at the Shefa School
When: Tuesday, May 5, at 8 p.m.
Where: Teaneck. Address will be given after RSVP to Office@shefaschool.org